“I don’t know how to talk to my friends anymore. I feel like I’m fading into the background, and no one understands.”
“Tommy” is an eighth-grade student who was withdrawing from friends and family. A schoolwide behavior survey alerted the school counselor to his isolation issues.
“The counselor talked with him and learned that he missed being part of a group, so she was able to get him into lunch bunch and leadership groups,” says Brandy Ludlam, lead school counselor for Lexington County School District 1. “At the end of the year, there was a complete turnaround where he was making straight A’s and on student council. I just think about what could have happened if that counselor had not intervened.”
What could have happened?
It is an all-too-familiar question in South Carolina as the state struggles to meet mental health service needs. The U.S. Department of Education reports that students across the nation are experiencing rising levels of anxiety, depression and mental health issues since 2016; at the same time, state reports indicate access to trained counselors in South Carolina schools has been shrinking.
Recruiting more trained school counselors is crucial to providing a lifeline of support. More than 56 percent of South Carolinians ages 12 to 17 who have depression did not receive any care in the past year, according to the National Association of Mental Illness. Students with depression are two times more likely to drop out than their peers.
The University of South Carolina is addressing this shortfall by growing the state’s pipeline of trained school counselors and school mental health specialists, thanks to a five-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. College of Education faculty members will recruit and train 72 additional graduate students for Project PRISMS (Providing Resources to Increase School Mental Health Support) to work in high-need schools.
Student tuition will be reimbursed, and participants will receive a stipend for working in partner district schools in Aiken, Richland 2 and Lexington 1 — areas that have higher ratios of students to counselors. They must also commit to working in those schools for at least two years after graduation, says Jonathan Ohrt, counselor education professor and program coordinator.
More than guidance
School is often the first place children and adolescents receive mental health help. In South Carolina, children are 21 times more likely to access mental health services in schools than in any other setting, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The Palmetto State’s school counselors are now trained in mental health prevention work, including coping skills, stress management and crisis counseling — a big shift from their traditional role providing post-secondary or career planning, says O’Tasha Morgan, the Lead School Counselor for Richland 2.
“We look at a child as more than just criteria on paper,” says Morgan, who earned her Ph.D. from USC in 2011. “We look at their academics, personal, emotional and social well-being. And we look at their barriers, and we try to intervene to reduce and minimize those barriers.”
Students in USC’s PRISMS program will receive extra training in the unique needs of children in underserved schools. They often have experienced high levels of trauma and may face concerns about school safety, financial insecurity, divorce and race issues, which can weigh heavily on them.
Ohrt says the graduate program also aims to recruit Black and Hispanic students, who are typically underrepresented in mental health fields. He says K-12 students may be more comfortable seeking help from professionals who look like them. “Research shows that clients tend to prefer mental health professionals who are racially similar.”
School counselors who connect with students can provide early intervention that may not only transform their lives but also save them. Emergency self-harm calls are rising faster among South Carolina children 14 and younger than among any other age group, according to NAMI.
“Mental health professionals in schools are on the front lines of helping students cope with the demands of everyday life,” says Shirley Vickery, Richland 2’s Executive Director of Learning Support Services. “Children bring all kinds of struggles to school, whether they struggle with social skills, academics or not feeling supported, if they have home challenges. Our community relies on us to have the highest quality counselors in schools.”
The first cohort of 20 graduate students started the program in June.
If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to free texting and call services for support.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741
- USC Emergency Crisis Line: 803-777-5223